June 15, 2003

FUTURE FATHERS

He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse. Malachi 4:6

“Daddy, when you were little, did you ever think about what you wanted to be when you grew up?” My young daughter looked up at me, eagerly waiting for my answer.

“Yes, I did think about what I wanted to be,” I replied. “For a while I wanted to be a cowboy. Then I wanted to be a policeman. At times I thought about becoming a preacher. I also thought it would be fun to play professional basketball.”

My little girl grinned and said, “Did you want to be anything else?”

“Well,” I answered, “When I got a little older, I thought I might like to work in politics. At college I did well in math and thought of becoming a mathematician or a computer programmer. Then I got to thinking more and more about becoming a preacher, because I sensed God leading me in that direction.”

My daughter kept smiling and nodding I talked about my boyhood dreams and the various things I had thought of becoming. Finally, when I finished talking about all the different possibilities I had considered, she asked one final time, “Is there anything else you wanted to be?”

I hesitated a moment and said, “Not that I can think of right now, honey.”

She looked straight at me and said, “Didn’t you ever want to be a dad?”

I felt a little foolish. Then I smiled and hugged my little girl and said, “Of course I wanted to be a dad. I love being a dad. I especially love being your dad.”

Ask a man what he does, and often the first thing he thinks of is his job. That’s important, but to a child, the greatest thing about her father is simply that he’s a dad–her dad!

As a boy growing up, I did want to be a dad, even though I failed to say so when my daughter was questioning me. I assumed it would be good be become a father someday, because I had a dad I loved and admired. There were some things about my dad that I might have changed if I could, but overall I figured my father was a good man and fathering was a good thing, and I hoped that fatherhood was in my own future. Now I am a father, with six children in our home—the same number my father had. I still have a long way to go before I live up to my dad’s legacy, but I’m trying to be a good father, and I am more convinced than ever that fathering is a huge joy and one of the greatest needs in our world today.

Failed Fathering

Fathers have power to do great good or great harm. Few things can match the positive power of faithful fathering. And few things can match the destructive power of failed fathering. As a boy I grew up with the mindset of a future father because I had a father to look up to, and most of what I know about fathering was caught from my dad, not taught from a book. But many people don’t have a dad like mine. Many are growing up fatherless, and the situation seems to be getting worse.

American researcher David Blankenhorn says, “More than half of our nation’s children are likely to spend at least a significant portion of their childhoods living apart from their fathers. Never before in this country have so many children been voluntarily abandoned by their fathers.” This is true of the United States, and the same trend has hit Canada, Europe, Africa, and societies worldwide. Growing up fatherless has a devastating impact. Here are some sobering statistics:

  • 80% of all adolescents in psychiatric hospitals come from fatherless homes.
    · 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes.
    · 85% of all youths in prisons grew up in a fatherless home.
    · 80% of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes.
    · 72% of adolescent murderers grew up without fathers.
    · 71% of all pregnant teenagers lack a father.
    · 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes.

Such statistics lead Blankenhorn to call fatherlessness “the most urgent social problem of our time.”

In just forty years, fatherlessness has tripled. Forty years ago, 17 percent of all children did not have their father living at home. Today, more than fifty percent of youths will live without their fathers at some time before they turn 18. And among these youth, the boys are less likely than ever to see themselves as future fathers. They have little idea of what it means to be a real father and little desire to become one. Oh, more boys than ever are having sex whenever they can, and that tends to produce offspring. But there’s a huge difference between getting someone pregnant and really being a father. Millions of boys simply don’t think or act like future fathers. They hardly believe in real fatherhood at all.

Believing in Fatherhood

If loss of fatherhood is a huge problem, says David Blankenhorn, loss of belief in fatherhood is an even more gigantic problem. If boys and men have no clear idea of what a father should be and no strong sense of the importance of fatherhood, there’s little hope for fatherhood to make a comeback. To recover fatherhood, we must we must first believe in fatherhood. We need more boys and young men to see themselves as future fathers, to have a clear vision of what fatherhood involves and to desire that for themselves.

One symptom of not believing in fatherhood is the notion that growing up with a single mother is just as good for a child as growing up with a mother and father. Many fatherless children are at risk for all sorts of destructive problems, but the facts might hurt someone’s feelings, so we tell tall tales about all family arrangements being equally good. We may think we’re being nice and non-judgmental, but in the process we deny that there is any ideal to believe in and shoot for. If our society says children without fathers are as well off as a children with fathers, fathers get the message that fatherhood is unnecessary. If taking responsibility as a father doesn’t really matter, why do it?

Instead of spreading lies that fathers don’t count for much, we must hold fatherhood in high esteem, honor faithful fathers, and look to them as models and mentors for the generation. Boys and young men must be encouraged to believe in fatherhood as a high goal, to channel their strength and energy toward that goal, and to see themselves as future fathers.

What happens if men don’t turn their hearts toward their children, and if children don’t look to their fathers? Society finds itself under a curse of divine judgment. In the Bible book of Malachi, God promises to send a messenger before he himself comes in judgment. This messenger, says the Lord, “will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:6). To avoid being cursed and to enjoy life as God designed it and experience his blessing, we must recover fatherhood and belief in fatherhood.

Affirming Manhood

Part of believing in fatherhood is affirming the value of manhood. We could look at many things a father is, but let’s not overlook the obvious: a father is a male, a man, and his maleness is important and valuable. Mothers and fathers share many tasks of parenting in common, but there are some things only mothers can do, and some things only fathers can do. One of the most important things a father can do for his children that a mother can’t do is simply this: be a man. It’s best for every child to have a man to look up to, a strong, reliable father. It’s especially important for boys as future fathers and future men to have fathers to show boys what healthy manhood is like and to affirm the boys’ developing manhood.

The need is greater than ever in a society where being male is often treated as a disease. Boys are three to four more times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). Do all of these ADD boys really have a disorder? What if they just have an extra shot of boyish energy and aggressiveness? Many boys would rather run around and wrestle and compete than sit in a desk. Is that a disease? Lionel Tiger says in his book The Decline of Males, “Boys as a group appear to prefer relatively boisterous and mobile activities to the sedate and physically restricted behavior that school systems reward and to which girls seem to be more inclined.” How does society deal with these boys? It calls them ADD and prescribes Ritalin or some other tranquilizing drug. “This situation is scandalous. The use of drugs so disproportionately among boys betrays the failure of school authorities to understand sex differences,” says Lionel Tiger. “The only disease these boys may have is being male.”

Being male is not a disease. God created maleness, and it is not a bad thing to be energetic, aggressive, competitive, and tough. We go against God’s creative design when we try to drug the masculine aggressiveness out of a boy, or when schools, churches, and mothers try to socialize the aggressiveness out of him and tame him into a nice, sweet, girlish child. In his book Wild at Heart, John Eldredge points out,

Society at large can’t make up its mind about men. Having spent the last thirty years redefining masculinity into something more sensitive, safe, manageable and, well, feminine, it now berates men for not being men… “Where are all the real men?” is regular fare for talk shows and new books. You have asked them to be women, I want to say. The result is a gender confusion never experienced at such a wide level in the history of the world. How can a man know he is one when his highest aim is minding his manners?

What does it take to affirm maleness and to help boys become true men? It takes fathers. That’s why so many fatherless boys are messed up: they don’t have someone to transmit healthy manhood to them. Deep inside every boy is a need to be a real man. But what is the standard for manhood? And does he measure up? Does he have what it takes? John Eldredge says,

Masculinity is bestowed. A boy learns who he is and what he’s got from a man, or the company of men. He cannot learn it any other place. He cannot learn it from other boys, and he cannot learn it from the world of women.

Some boys without a father or other masculine authority figure end up passive and aimless, while others go the opposite extreme, trying to prove their manhood by violent attacks or sexual conquest. If these boys had mature, manly fathers to bestow masculinity on them, they would know how to use their aggressive and adventuresome nature for better things than foolish violence, and they would know how to direct their sexual energy toward one special woman, rather than stupidly trying to score with as many women as possible. The more fathers invest themselves in their sons and bring out the best in their manhood, the brighter the future will be for future fathers.

Human Fathers, Heavenly Father

At the deepest level, for fathers to truly bless their sons and for sons to move forward toward becoming future fathers, we need the ultimate Father, God himself. Scripture speaks of the Lord as “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14 RSV). Human fatherhood has been designed and created by God to offer a glimpse of God’s own fatherhood. Jesus teaches us to speak to God as “our Father.” When fatherhood is failing, it’s a sign that we’ve lost touch with the heavenly Father who is the ultimate source of all family life. When we truly know God as our Father, we will have renewed faith in fatherhood, and our families will be transformed.

A man doesn’t know the full responsibility and glory of fatherhood until he recognizes that God created human fatherhood to reflect divine fatherhood. That design is such a deep part of created reality that whether fathers are true to God or not, their children’s impressions of God are often shaped by what their fathers are like. We, human fathers, are constantly sending messages about the heavenly Father, whether we realize it or not. The messages may be false and destructive, or the messages may be true and helpful, but either way, a human father can’t help sending his children messages about the heavenly Father.

A man who sires offspring but abandons them sends a message that God created us but doesn’t care about us and wants nothing to do with us. A father who spends time with his children and takes a personal interest in them sends a message that the heavenly Father is with us and is interested in us.

A man who doesn’t provide his family with food and shelter sends a message that God does not provide for our needs. A father who works hard to pay the bills for his family sends a message that the heavenly Father feeds and clothes his children.

A man who always takes the safest, easiest approach and won’t fight against wrong sends a message that God is boring and passive. A father who enjoys adventure and stands against evil sends a message that the heavenly Father is a warrior.

A man who is too busy for conversation with his children sends a message that God is too busy with important things to listen to our prayers. A father who loves listening to his children pour out their hearts sends a message that the heavenly Father delights in the prayers of his people.

A man who abuses and violates his children sends a message that God is cruel and twisted. A father who protects and builds up his children sends a message that the heavenly Father desires what is best for them.

A man who constantly makes demands of his children but seldom praises or encourages them sends a message that God has an endless list of demands. A father who encourages his children sends a message that the heavenly Father is a great encourager and helper.

A man who makes no demands of his children and never disciplines them sends a message that God is a marshmallow with no clear expectations and no firm direction. A father who expects to be obeyed and disciplines disobedience sends a signal that the heavenly Father guides and disciplines those he loves.

A man who is constantly angry and slow to forgive his children’s failings sends a signal that God is a grump who holds grudges. A father who is slow to anger and quick to forgive sends a signal that the heavenly Father is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.

A man who doesn’t instruct his children sends a message that God isn’t interested in truth or in what we believe. A father who trains and instructs his children biblically sends a message that the heavenly Father prizes truth and wants us to know it.

A man who is unreliable and doesn’t do what he promises sends a message that God is untrustworthy. A father who does what he says and comes through when it counts sends a message that the heavenly Father comes through for his children.

If you are a father, you are your children’s first picture of what God is like. What sort of picture are they getting? None of us fathers are sinless as God is, but something of God’s character should be evident in a father. Is there anything in your life that would attract your family to the Lord? Or is your fatherhood a barrier that blocks your children from trusting in the heavenly Father and makes it very hard for them to pray gladly to the Lord as “Our Father in heaven”? Few sins are so terrible as a father damaging his children by evil conduct, making the very title father a dirty word for his kids and blaspheming the precious name of the heavenly Father. And few things are so splendid for a man as a father relating to his children in such a way that they see God in him and get to know the Lord as their Father through the fatherhood of their dad.

Ultimate Fatherhood

Now, if it’s a fact that a father’s actions send a message about the heavenly Father—whether a good, true message or an evil, false message—the flip side is also a fact: getting to know the heavenly Father and having a healthy relationship with him can transform our view of fatherhood and the way we fathers behave. Otherwise there would be little hope for people who grow up without good fathers: they would get a twisted picture of God, and they would have little chance of becoming good fathers themselves. But God doesn’t fail just because sinful fathers fail. Even if your father has abandoned or abused you, there is still a Father who will never leave you nor wrong you. Even if you’re a young man without a good father as mentor and model, you can still become a good father yourself by focusing on God’s ultimate fatherhood and modeling your fatherhood on his.

In the Bible God reveals himself Father and calls us to relate to him as his children through faith in Jesus Christ. Faithful Christian fathers can show by their character and actions something of the fatherhood of God, but even if you’ve never had a good human father, you can find out from the Bible what God’s fatherhood is like. If you’re a boy or a man, take God’s fatherhood as the starting point for your own fatherhood.

As you meet the ultimate Father, God himself, in the Bible, you can also see good fatherhood close up. Just join a healthy Christian church with leaders who are strong, mature men, men who can serve as mentors and models. In some churches the men leave almost everything to women and may not even bother showing up, but in healthy churches there are men of God who have what it takes to encourage other men and guide boys on the path to mature manhood. These men of God take to heart the Bible’s command: “Stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). The adventure of faith and the challenge of fatherhood calls for all the firmness, courage, and strength a man can muster—all the while motivated by love. In a healthy church, men of God help and encourage each other to be faithful fathers and bold pioneers of God’s kingdom. The Bible says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

God calls on fathers to turn their hearts toward their children, and children to turn their hearts to their fathers. This is excellent advice, of course, and it is more than that: it is a call to experience something of the nature of God himself. The Bible reveals that God’s eternal being involves fatherhood and sonship: the first Person of the Holy Trinity is God the Father, and the second Person of the Holy Trinity is God the Son, Jesus Christ. This Father-Son relationship has existed eternally, and it is the root of God’s design for human fatherhood and sonship.

As a son of my father, and as the father of my own children, I am participating in something splendid and mysterious. It’s not just a matter of getting along with other humans; it’s experiencing and living out of the reality of the Lord God Almighty. I either shine with the reflected glory of God himself, or I blaspheme God the Father and God the Son by the kind of Son I am and by the kind of Father I am. If sons don’t turn their hearts to their fathers and if fathers don’t turn their hearts toward their sons, they aren’t just wronging each other. They’re also committing blasphemy against the deepest meaning of fatherhood and sonship.

As a son of my dad, do I honor him and seek to increase his joy and his reputation by the kind of son I am? That’s what Jesus the Son does for his Father: he seeks to please God the Father and bring him glory. If I honor my father, I am imitating Jesus, who honors his Father.

As the father of my children, do I love, encourage, and challenge them to do great things? That’s what God the Father has done for his Son: he loves Jesus with an everlasting love and has given Jesus the ultimate challenge, knowing that in meeting this challenge, Jesus’ name would be greater than any other in the universe. If I love my children, take pleasure in them, and urge them to dare great things, I am imitating the heavenly Father’s treatment of his own beloved Son.

What do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be a son patterned on the Son of God, and I want to be a Father, patterned on God the Father. How about you? What do you want to be when you grow up?

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.